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Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)

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future islands samuel thumb 260x260 Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)Somewhere along the way, Honesty evolved into Authenticity — the younger, more attractive form of quintessential truth. Honesty is seen as creaky, preachy, cheap — with not nearly as many layers as there is to being authentic. There are positives in both camps, but certainly the pulse of the music scene today beats for the fresh scent of authenticity. Samuel T. Herring, frontman for the Baltimore-via-North Carolina band Future Islands, approaches his songs with the kind of bare, languid honesty that feels absolutely unflappable in the sphere of music today.

Herring shouldn’t fear honesty, because the music that carries his heartfelt lyrics protects them from too much scrutiny or outright dismissal, like the cool clique bringing along the weird drama kid to the party. He wears the simple truth with confidence. His second proper LP with Future Islands, On the Water (due out this week), is one made for all the thoughts and emotions that can take place at the water’s edge. The album is personal in tone, dramatic in scope, earnest in delivery, and offers more opportunities for reflection than dancing this time about.

Not that you won’t see Herring dance while he’s performing these songs. At a Future Islands show, his desire for connection sends him to the furthest reaches of the stage like he’s tugging on an invisible leash chained to the back wall. Even in performance, there’s no pretense to his persona; Herring is that force often too strong for the average concertgoer to absorb in full.

We spoke with Herring about the origins of this record, his feelings about the songwriting process, growing up on The Sound, Baltimore, North Carolina, Daniel Johnston, and self destructing/transcending on the stage.

Have you ever lived on the water?

Yeah. I grew up in a small town called Morehead City, and my house was about two and a half blocks from the sound, or the shore, as you call it. It’s the water that’s trapped between the Barrier Islands and the ocean. That was a big part of my childhood, just walking down to the water and sitting out there. And I’m much more a “sound-side” kid, not only growing up, but still, to this day I just love the stillness of it out there. It’s not like where the beach is, it’s crowded, it’s a big tourist town there. So, people can be at the beach, and I can just sit down by the water by myself. Gerrit, our keyboardist, we grew up together, so that was a big part of our early childhood.

Do you feel that the tone of On the Water is more getting back in touch with childhood, or redefining what that stillness means, now that you’re older?

It’s more like remembering that this place is still as it always was. The way the sound was for me as a child, always returning to the sound late at night, being out of the house, and just sitting there by myself, and listening to my Walkman, and just reflecting. And when I go home now, it’s the same. The first thing I do is drive out there and park across from the water, and get out, put my feet in the water, talking to the water, talking to myself. So, this album is more of a reaffirmation of what the water is for me as a constant in my life.

black and white 3 Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)

Photo by Mike Vorassi

Compared to your previous albums, there’s more of a sense of calm that’s happening here, whether it’s a more reflective one, or more patient . Was that something you were going for in the writing process?

Well, that’s the thing…We weren’t trying to “go for” anything, and we don’t want to push too hard with this. In the songwriting, we realized when we went to record in North Carolina, we went down there with five songs and came out of the session with 10 songs. But, you know, those five songs were already putting us on that path. It wasn’t really a matter of trying to create anything in particular, more or less just what we were creating at the time. The question was, “What will these songs sound like when they come out of the recording? What will they sound like? Where are we now?”

The first song we wrote that became a part of the album was “On the Water”. When we wrote that song, it was… I don’t want to say a turning point, but, for me, that song was really heavy, and considering how slow it is, and the tone of it, the story I was telling was really, really heavy for me. Are we taking a chance by going in this direction? When we heard that song, we were like, “Well, we’re doing it! This is it! The slowest song we’ve ever written.”

To me, “On the Water” acts as a synopsis for the whole story. The first verse is about an ex-girlfriend of mine and remembering a time when everything was fine, and the second verse is about finding this new person and telling them the story of when everything went wrong with this other person and telling them, you know, “Don’t worry. That’s not going to happen to us. Everything’s gonna be fine with us.” It’s like trying to reassure someone of something that you’re not even sure of.

Download: Future Islands – “Balance”

That song really put us on a different path of sound and discovering something new. It wasn’t like, “Let’s continue to write calm songs” or “let’s write a calm album.” It was more or less just where we were at that time, coming off a lot of touring, riding that feeling. The calm in “On the Water” is also just the understanding of what came after the last album. In the Evening Air is real life. Those are real songs about my life, our lives. And then this is just like a year has passed, being out on the road, the understanding of those certain stories, and then coming back and writing again, and asking, “Well, where is your heart now? Or mind? Do you still harbor anger?” There was a lot of anger on the former album, but this new album has kind of washed it away, and I don’t mean for that to be such a pun. Really, the way time changes things, the way time changes the way we feel and maybe how it allows you to accept things again instead of being afraid of them… To me, that’s the calmness, and this album is just trying to look at things instead of just reacting.

roof 2 Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)A lot of songwriters go through those stages, and I love seeing a songwriter arrive at that moment of retrospection. There really is a calming aspect to this record, and it’s affecting to me because there’s something very straightforward about it.

Oh, yeah.

And I think there’s some dovetailing from, say, “Inch of Dust”, just because that’s also such a simple, heartfelt song. On here, a lot of these lyrics are cinematic and grandiose, with less of a focus on the abstract. Did you have an inspiration for this, lyrically?

It’s something that I’ve really been working on, trying to strip away the poetry. I’m glad you hit on that. I actually just listened to In the Evening Air and On the Water back-to-back a couple of weeks ago, and it was the first time I had listened to In the Evening Air in about six or seven months, and I was really questioning On the Water, you know, like, “Are people going to get this? Does this have enough energy? Are people going to understand?” Obviously, the production value of  On the Water is a step up, even thoughwe’re using the same equipment, still recording in a house. This is a beautiful album. This is perfect.

We didn’t want to create the same album, but when we went in the studio, we felt like we were creating the same album, and then things kind of changed in the studio. But, for the words, years ago, when I found out about Daniel Johnston, listening to his songs and his style of writing, I was kind of taken aback by the way he could just say in a song “I love you” or “I think you’re beautiful.” He said things so plainly, and it hit me so hard, like, “How can you just say that, man? How can you just go out and say that?” Why can’t I say something that is so painfully honest? I’ve always talked about trying to write in a universal language where everyone can understand what I’m trying to say, but at the same time I was still covered in poetry, because it’s beautiful to me. But there’s also poetry in truth and being honest, and I’ve told people that you may think that this is going to be, you know, like we were talking about before, calmer, slower. But I feel like it’s a really intense album on the inside about sharing extreme truth, and that’s an intense thing to take on.

Do you think telling the truth in music is becoming harder and harder?

Some of these songs, especially “Where I Found You” and “Grease”, these songs were so difficult for me to write, because they were, well, they weren’t difficult to actually write, but it was a matter of whether I was going to do and say these things because they were so truthful to my life that it was kind of scary to share these stories or share these certain things. But that’s what we want to do. We want to be that band that can be honest, that doesn’t want to be vague and hide behind certain ideas, ideologies, or symbols. We want people to respect us as regular dudes making music, but I think there’s an art in being honest, and I think we lose that a lot in music, a certain honesty that is so there, and so raw. I want to hit on that. It’s just like in “Grease”, you know, “What happened to youth? We’re not 22 anymore. Where did we go? Here we are. We’re still doing this. What do we have so far?”

Download: Future Islands – “Before the Bridge”

“What happens to youth/what happens to truth?” That’s like speaking to our lives, and maybe being lied to, maybe lying to people we’re close to. But, also, “What happens to truth in music? And then what happens to me?” I’m falling apart here, so it’s just, like, honest questions that don’t have the simplest answers. But let’s ask these questions. I’m all about it.

You recorded this album in North Carolina, and you’ve talked about how much that impacted this album, but I’ve always described you to friends as a Baltimore band. What does being “from Baltimore” mean to you at this point?

It is kind of a dual personality for us. When we go onstage, I always say “We’re Future Islands. We’re from Baltimore, MD, but we’re North Carolina souls.” North Carolina is so deep in our blood and who we are as people and so much about our struggle as a band and making a big jump. But being part of the Baltimore scene is pretty amazing. There’s a great amount of community here. When we showed up here, we felt the community, but there was also that fear that people would kind of look at us as another band that’s jumping on the back of this thing that’s happening, even though some of our best friends were the ones doing it.

You’re talking about the Wham City guys?

Yeah. We’ve always been distant cousins of the Wham City scene, because we’d be doing our own thing down in North Carolina and putting up all those bands at our houses and throwing shows and having them open for us when we were on tour. So, when we moved to Baltimore, it was a matter of whether people were going to respect us. But that’s part of the Baltimore aesthetic, you know, putting your work in, doing it, and doing it, and doing it, because you’re not going to be in the national spotlight. But, in Baltimore, there’s such a variety of bands, and the bands that I know about are just very different from each other, and that’s really important to a scene, I think, not being able to pin down a sound. You’ve got Beach House on one side, and Dan Deacon on the other. They all bring their own kind of intensity and their own kind of show, and that’s what I think it’s all about.

And it’s also a great inspiration in making music and trying to do something different. You know, it’s just like when you’re in art school and you want to bring something new to the table and impress people, and because you respect them, you want to get respect too. So, you work hard and try to build that friendship. But I don’t feel like there’s any of that competition here, and that’s a big big part of the community here, that lack of competition and that heavy amount of support.

There’s an energy to your show that I really enjoy. When you perform live, is there a moment or a reaction or a feeling you hope to get? 

What you want most is people’s eyes. You want their attention, and that’s a big part of performance for me. It’s something that I learned only in the last few years with traveling to Europe for the first couple of times and seeing a different kind of crowd there, where people are maybe not as lively. That’s not always true, because some of those shows are crazy, but a kind of wild show in the states would be a pretty wild show there. You know, I love a crowd that’s gonna sing along or be a throng of people dancing and moving and sweating with us. But, to me, that’s an easy show. It’s already about energy. When you’ve got people screaming just when you walk out onstage, you’re halfway there; you’re just pumped up from that.

futureisland 11 Interview: Samuel T. Herring (of Future Islands)

Photo by Meghan Brosnan

The other side of it, when you’ve got people hanging on every word you’re saying, whether or not they understand, you’ve just got people staring at you in a kind of amusement, and you can tell that they’re right there with you, just listening to your story. That’s when I have a really good time performing, using my body to tell a story, especially in that sense when you’re overseas and there’s a language barrier. I love to perform, so I really like both sides of that, and all we really want is to get people’s energy and give them something.

I think my favorite moment at a show is when I’m confused but also having a really good time. That’s my perfect blend.

I remember reading this book Alt-Rock-A-Rama, and it’s a bunch of industry people and writers and musicians [talking] about some of the craziest shows they’ve been to, and some of the most insane stories of all the craziest rockers from Henry Rollins to Mick Jagger, and all over the board. But I remember there was a really famous rock writer who had, like, his top five criteria for seeing a band live, and it always struck me as odd. I guess I got ahold of that book when we first started making music, and I think his number one criteria was “a band that looked like they could break down at any moment, or look like they could transcend time,” you know. I always thought that was interesting, because, where do you find that balance? And I think that’s somewhat my performance. There’s somewhat of that caged wildness to what I try to do. I mean, I hate to say, “what I try to do,” because it is the music moving me. But it is also a performance in that I know what I’m doing because of the experience of doing it.

But, then again, you find certain things just like freestyling or something. When you’re feeling the music just right, you hit on something completely new that you didn’t know was there, something you didn’t know that you could do onstage. There’s a lot of factors in what we want to do for an audience and what we need to do for ourselves to keep things fresh and to keep it interesting. You just have to do it with great conviction and love and hope that you can transcend.

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